Resurrection of the Dead in Early Judaism, 200 BCE - CE 200

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C. D. Elledge
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , July
     272 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In traditional rabbinic Judaism, five fundamental points are emphasized at the Jewish burial service: (1) resignation of life is at the will of God and survivors assert their faith in the absolute justice of Providence (Barukh Dayyan HaEmet); (2) the immortality of the soul—a spark of the Divine Being—is immortal; (3) there is a Judge and Judgment Day; (4) resurrection of the dead; and (5) the immortality and resurrection of Israel. At the burial, earth is cast on the casket, Kaddish in praise of the Holy One, Blessed be He, is recited thereby releasing the neshama (soul, unique divine spark) upward to enter the Heavenly Academy (Yeshiva shel Ma`ala) to engage in sanctity, solidity, and endless study. “Just as a person goes, so he will return. If he died blind, deaf or mute, he will return blind, deaf or mute. As he goes clothed, he will return clothed.God said, ‘let them rise as they went—and afterwards I will heal them’” (Gen. Rab., 95). Těḥiyat ha-mētīm (“resurrection/revival of the dead”), collaborative with that of the immortality of the soul, are cherished among the essential principles of the Jewish faith. Traditional sources and belief aside, however, academic research on the topic are scarce and not well known. C.D. Elledge’s Resurrection of the Dead in Early Judaism 200 BCE–CE 200 is a serious attempt to fill the lacuna.

The volume discusses the emergence and reception of doctrines of the resurrection of the dead from its earliest passages in 1 Enoch (c. 200 BCE) through its rabbinical accepted eschatological belief doctrine (c. 200 CE). Interspersed are Synoptic Gospel narratives, pre-Gospel Pauline rhetoric, and post-70 CE apocalypses on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus related to selected Second Temple eschatological narratives and teachings. Each chapter is presented with an introduction, annotation (detailed notes, bibliography, abundant scriptural and non-scriptural references), and informed commentary. Elledge’s objective is 1) provide converging writings on the emergence and centrality of a death related belief doctrine centralized in early rabbinic Judaism and nascent church and its centrifugal role in contemporary eschatological Jewish and Christian teaching and preaching; 2) to conjecture diverse scriptural and non-scriptural text that generated interest in resurrection and immortality; 3) to present analysis and commentary on how the innovative doctrine of resurrection challenged existent teachings on death by integrating it into a theology of creation and affirmation of divine justice at mortality end (barukh dayyan ha-emet); and 4) to engage the importance of resurrection in the study of the Tannaim and nascent church, and its relevance today. Of particular intrigue, Jewish engagement with the Shoah and birth of the State of Israel in categories of collective death and rebirth—a relio-nationalism fully endorsed by Christian Evangelicals and Religious Zionists.  

In chapter 1, Elledge surveys scholarship on the study of resurrection today. Chapters 2-6  present scriptural passages, post-exilic texts in context, and converging and diverging views reflecting variety not unity in the acceptance of resurrection in Second Temple Judaism. Engaged analysis of legitimation and denial of resurrection and alternate, immortality of the soul, are also presented. Chapters 7-9 depict resurrection as it appears in specific works: the 1 Enoch/Book of Watchers (Hellenistic period, Maccabian age); the Dead Sea Scrolls (sectarian adaptation); and the ethnographic writings of Josephus (Palestinian Jewry).  Discussion of New Testament resurrection passages are featured in the concluding chapter. Interlacing the death and resurrection of the Jewish Jesus with the destruction and rebirth of the Chosen People are indispensable for the common interest of Christians and Jews.

Biblical era Judaism views immortality in three stages. One, biological immortality, “Be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1:28; 9:1), living on through one’s children. Two, name immortality, remembered for a blessing due to a life lived by justice, mercy, and charity in the fullest adherence to the commandments and teachings of the Torah narrative, teaching, and theology. Three, group immortality, continuity of the peoplehood surpasses personal death. Dead people consigned to a space called Sheol and living a shadowy existence in the dust of the earth (see Dan 12:2; Ps 30:10; Job 17:16, and on). 

Biblical references to the resurrection of the dead are primarily from the Persian period. For example, Isaiah 26:19, in context a rejection of life without meaning leading to a doomsday predicament: “The dead live not, the shades rise not” (Isaiah 26: 14). Interpreted as an antiphonal poem proclaiming the resurrection of the dead, it engages God and celebrates the miracle of resurrected life. As dew revives vegetation, supernatural tal (“dew”) resurrects the dead. Personal resurrection is read into these lines. However, more seemingly is the restoration of the nation Israel as noted: Isaiah 26:19 Your dead shall live (God addresses Israel), my dead bodies shall arise (assertion of the people)—awake and sing, ye that dwell in the dust (resurrected people engages in new song and spiritual vitality)—for Thy dew is as the dew of light, and the earth shall bring to life the shades (divine revitalization of the thin and shadowy personalities of the dead).

Additionally, in the Second Temple period apocalyptic literature developed a sophisticated day of judgment for all peoples and nations. A day in which ephemeral souls are reconnected with dead bodies, resurrected and judged by God, evaluated by one’s earthly behavior. Pre-sorting, compartmentation, and direction of souls prior to and about Judgment Day is extant in Jewish Pseudepigrapha literature, Greek philosophy, and New Testament sources depicting judgment of sinners. All sources suggest that the afterlife is determined by pre-mortem behavior rather than post-mortem fatality. 

The salvation of every Israelite/Jew is linked with the salvation of Israel and guided by Torah teachings, the spread of justice and righteousness, requisite in the coming of the Messianic Age for the extant living and the restored dead (guf, mortal/material body). According to the teachings of Maimonides (1135-1204) and Judah Halevi (1075-1141), the Rabbinic World to Come is not the Messianic era and so the principle is immortality or resurrection of the soul not the body. Nonetheless, the teachings of Naḥmanides (1194- c.1270), Ḥasdai Crescas (c.1340- c.1410), and his pupil, Joseph Albo (c.1380- 1435) insist that the dead will be resurrected wearing their clothes (b. Ketub 111b) and that the righteous whom God will resurrect will not return to their dust (b. Sanh 72a), pointing to a belief in bodily resurrection.

Rabbinic tradition envisions a recomposed new body reunited with the soul of the deceased. The reunion of eternal soul and afterlife body is done by God at a moment chosen by Him. The mystery of Afterlife defies logical thought and reconstruction, being explained in similar cadences as the mystery of birth and ultimately doctrinaire beriat `olam (“creation of the world”). How to explain existence from non-existence and previous states of existence? You don’t. “We will consider the matter when they come to life again” (b. Nid 70b).                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              

The doctrine of the resurrection of the dead coupled with the immortality of the soul are extant in contemporary practice and belief of Orthodox Judaism. Non-Orthodoxy believes in the immortality of the soul but less in the resurrection of the dead. Questions?  Elledge’s erudite volume on developing resurrection ideas within early Judaism is a place to start.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Zev Garber is Emeritus Professor and Chair of Jewish Studies and Philosophy at Los Angeles Valley College.

Date of Review: 
February 11, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

C. D. Elledge is associate professor of religion at Gustavus Adolphus College in Saint Peter, Minnesota, where he teaches courses in New Testament and Early Jewish literature. After completing his Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary, Elledge served as a Fulbright Scholar at the Hebrew University Institute of Archaeology and the Ecole Biblique de Jerusalem. His publications include Life after Death in Early Judaism (Mohr Siebeck, 2006), The Bible and the Dead Sea Scrolls (Society of Biblical Literature, 2005), and The Statutes of the King: The Temple Scroll's Legislation on Kingship (Peeters, 2004).


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